Spain Discovers the New World

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Balboa Claims Lands for Spain

Spanish claims in the Americas began with Columbus and eventually included southern North America, Central America and most of South America.

By 1504, Columbus had completed four voyages to the Americas and historians today still debate whether he eventually realized that he discovered new lands and not islands leading to Japan or China. By the mid-century, Spain claimed the southern regions of North America, all of Central America, and all of South America except Brazil, which was a Portuguese colonial possession by virtue of the 1494 Treaty of Tordesillas. This feat, accomplished within a few decades, was largely due to the audacity and ambitions of the Conquistadors.

Early Spanish Successes in North America

A decade after Columbus’ final voyage, Vasco Balboa crossed the Isthmus of Panama and saw another great sea, the Pacific Ocean. This was the first inkling that the world was much larger than had been believed in terms of land mass. Six years later, Ferdinand Magellan rounded the tip of South America. Although he died in the Philippines, his crew completed the circumnavigation of the globe, successfully returning to Spain.

The same year that Balboa crossed Panama, Ponce de Leon landed in Florida. By then word had spread among indigenous peoples that the foreigners from across the ocean brought death and destruction. It was Easter and Ponce de Leon named the land “La Florida” for the abundance of flowers. He claimed all of the land north of Florida’s east coast for Spain.

Ponce de Leon returned to Florida in 1521 in order to further explore and to found a Catholic mission. Florida Native Americans, however, resisted, mortally wounding the explorer. A similar fate claimed the life of Lucas Vasquez de Ayllon in 1526, who led a colonizing party of 600 to Florida. In that effort, disease and lack of food killed most of the party.

Between 1539 and 1542 Hernan de Soto landed in Florida and began an extensive exploration of the North American Gulf Coast, including the great Mississippi River. Although he died in the process, Spain could claim the entire southeast which would come to include Texas, New Mexico, and California.

The Spanish Conquest of the Aztec and Inca Civilizations

Conquistadors were driven by gold and glory. In the process, many native peoples died. Bartolome de Las Casas, a former Conquistador who became a priest and advocated for the Native Americans, wrote that, “…for forty years the Spaniards have done nothing else than destroy them with new and diverse kinds of cruelty.” De Las Casas estimated that in forty years of Spanish conquest, “more than twelve million persons have perished unjustly.”

Hernan Cortes landed in Mexico in 1519 and within two years conquered and destroyed the Aztec civilization. Those native peoples that did not succumb to disease were used as forced labor. The same was true of the Inca civilization in Peru, conquered by the sadistic Francisco Pizzaro in the early 1530s. In the aftermath, Spain filled its treasury coffers with gold and silver from New Spain, establishing great mining complexes such as at Potosi in South America.

The Effects of Spain’s New World Discoveries

Spain’s foray into the Americas dramatically affected both Europe and native cultures. These impacts included:

  • The “Colombian exchange”
  • The deaths of millions of Native Americans largely due to disease
  • A significant change in the European economies and currency valuations
  • The start of colonial competition among European powers
  • The suppression of native cultural and religious beliefs

By 1588 Philip II of Spain sent an armada against England. The causes of this war included English raids on Spanish New World missions and settlements, most notably by Sir Francis Drake, England’s celebrated “Sea Dog.” A year before the ill-fated armada was defeated, Sir Walter Raleigh established the Roanoke Colony in the swamps of North Carolina, out of sight of Spanish ships sailing the coastal waters. The colony failed.

Spain’s New World Dominance Ends in the 17th Century

The French settlement at Quebec began in 1608 and in 1624 the Dutch, major mercantile competitors, established the New Netherlands colony along the Hudson River valley. Jamestown was established in 1607. Unlike the Spanish, however, England witnessed an exodus of families, notably in New England. During the early Spanish period of conquest, few families traveled to the New World.

The European competition continued throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. The Dutch relinquished their American holdings to England during the reign of Stuart king Charles II. France lost all of her North American claims at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763. That same year, Spain was forced to cede Florida to England, only to win it back after supporting the American independence movement in 1783. Not until the James Monroe presidency would Spain sell Florida to the United States.